You’ve always been passionate about nature photography, or maybe you recently discovered a talent for capturing people in motion and want to turn it into a full-time gig.
But with the rise of camera-smartphones and Insta-addicts, it seems as though everyone is a photographer these days, and it can be that much harder to separate yourself from the rest of the crowd. You might know you have a real gift, but how do you make everyone else understand that?
We spoke with Lauren Newman, the supremely talented international photographer and inspiring entrepreneur, to shed some light on how she started her own business and give advice to others who are looking to do the same.
As a portrait and wedding photographer, Lauren has spent her career capturing “humanity at its best and its worst,” as she puts it, all the way from Tel Aviv to Toronto. Her travels, penchant for natural light, and intense love of human connection and visual storytelling have helped her turn her passions into a full-time business for the past 8 years.
Continue on for Lauren’s expert tips, guidance and advice on how to start your own photography business!
Find Your Photography Niche
Every first-time (or second-time or third-time) business owner needs to find out what they’re good at and which unique space they occupy in their industry, and photography business owners are no exception. As such, the first thing to tackle when starting a photography business is picking a niche, or type of photography that interests you.
Each niche is completely different, requires different tools, takes a different direction; the best example is if you’re studying to be a doctor, you’ll likely first take some basic courses that are required to become a doctor for the first couple of years, but then you’re going to specialize in something – be it dentistry or plastic surgery.
The same thing applies to photography: You have fashion photography, travel photography, wedding photography – the list is long. And, what I know is wedding and portrait photography and a bit of travel photography, so I can only really speak to those.
In order to figure out what your niche is, ask to assist photographers who work in different areas. Try to follow what you’re passionate about and what you enjoy seeing and doing. Shadow photographers if you can, and try to partner with photographers that have a range of styles and subject matter, so you can see what it is you like and where your talents lie.
Admin, Paperwork, and Managing a Business
I hate to say it, but running your own photography business consists of 10% actual photography work and 90% managing your business.
And as much talent as you may have behind a camera lens, you’re not going to automatically know how to run your business once you start. Therefore, the first thing you should do is research, research, research. You NEED to know how to run a business, because behind all of the beauty of photography, there’s:
-Balancing your books
and many other things you would never think about until your neck is so deep into it you don’t know which way is up.
So, do yourself a favor and look into Business 101 courses. There are so many out there, whether within your town or city or online; you can often take business courses at night or online – just make sure to sign up for something.
Knowing your basic Business 101 is SO CRUCIAL for the survival of your business, because, ultimately, if you can’t run a business, you can’t continue to do photography. You need to learn how to manage that, and know what to expect so that your business will survive and thrive.
The basics you need to cover include:
Read up on your industry. Know what’s out there in terms of competition, and make lists of the vendors in your area, especially those whose work you like the look of. Get in touch with these people, invite them from coffee; photographers often have quite an isolated existence if they don’t make an effort, because you’re ultimately working from home (unless you’re an in-house photography studio, and even then, you’re mostly out on location or at home editing).
So, you have to make the effort to understand who the creators are in your community or area. For a wedding or portrait photographer, this could mean florists, caterers, musicians, and a big one is actually your neighborhood venues.
Most venues have open house days on which you can check out their facilities, and this could be a great opportunity to go there. You can even ask to speak to the in-house manager, or wedding planner if they have one on staff.
Bottom line: Research, research, research, and research some more.
Registering Your Business
Pro tip: Go on to the government website of wherever you live. Learn the steps for opening and registering your business; it should all be written there.
And, look into artists grants and small business loans to get you started. Most NGOs will help provide small artist grants or small business loans to people who are self-employed and looking to start their own businesses.
This is a big one! Unfortunately, “lesson learned, they’ve been burned,” and now many photographers advocate for contracts and agreements – rightfully so, because it’s so important to the survival of your business.
No matter how great a client seems (and a lot of the time they only have the best intentions), if you don’t have expectations written in black and white, there is too much room for error, and for letting your client down.
Make sure to draw up a contract, regardless of the circumstances; you have to protect yourself and your time. If you don’t know where to start, research photography contracts online, or even pay a lawyer a one-time fee for a meetup so that he can draw one up for you.
Another important thing is to know your tax dates. Hire an accountant to help you file your taxes (if you’re organized enough, you just need to contact them once a year). It’s a great investment to have an accountant go through your taxes every couple of months to make sure you’re keeping your books clean.
As a small business owner, there are a lot of ways to potentially save money – one of which being through tax breaks. File all of your receipts; know every possible rebate that you could get for your small business.
This includes things like home energy use; for example, if you’re working from home, you can actually set aside (by cubic foot or meter) the amount of space your office takes up in your home and divide your utility bills by your physical work space, and sometimes you can get tax rebates off of things like that, which can add up to save you quite a few hundred dollars. Every penny counts, especially when you’re starting your business.
From the outside in, choosing the “right” equipment definitely seems to be the most important factor in starting a photography business off correctly; however, once you start working as a photographer, you quickly realize that these are just tools that help you deliver your vision. What’s really important is your vision, your eye, and the story you’re creating for your clients.
So, while it’s important to have reliable equipment, I don’t think you need to have a set list. Obviously if you’re going into sports photography, you’re going to need a long focal length to capture plays from afar. As a wedding and portrait photographer, on the other hand, I’ve noticed that I like to work more with prime lenses, because they help to create the aesthetic that I’m working toward: Editorial and clean-cut.
I don’t like traveling with a load of equipment, because I want to be flexible and light on my feet – especially since there are long days as a wedding photographer that can reach up to 12 hours.
And, I don’t recommend any specific equipment, because you have to know which type of photography you want to pursue. Try out different lenses, and you can go from there as you learn. Start by renting, borrowing, and secondhand buying to get a feel for different kinds of lenses; there’s no use buying equipment until you know what you want.
Liability and Insurance
As the owner of a photography business, you are a one-woman/man show. Protect yourself. Most vendors and locations won’t ask it of you, but you need to have liability and insurance for yourself.
This is in case something goes wrong, or someone gets injured on the job – you are protected. For example, it’s known that at weddings, there are photographers who carry expensive equipment, and there are so many cases where this equipment gets stolen.
Always find a secure location for your gear that is insured, and make sure you attach a padlock to something that can’t be moved; personally, I usually look for a radiator, railing, or heavy table, and if I can’t find that, I’ll padlock my bags and introduce myself to the DJ, or someone who will be there all night in the same spot and ask them if I can leave my gear with them.
Branding and Marketing Your Photography Business
Word-of-mouth is a key way to getting customers and clients, but a key part of growing your photography business is through branding. Specifically, make sure to:
Create a logo.
You need a professional photography logo that expresses something about the services you offer. It doesn’t need to be anything complicated, but your logo should be a design that lets your audience easily identify your business.
You’re going to be watermarking many of your images, so you want a versatile logo that speaks to the type of photography you’re doing. Make sure that your logo appears on your website, social media pages, business cards, and any other places your business has a presence.
Set up a website.
As a photographer, your website is basically the window into your shop that presents who you are and all of your basic information that someone interested in your work would be looking for.
It’s crucial to have a site that provides a brief background about who you are and some of your best work. And, depending on the type of photographer you are, you may or may not put your prices online.
Create a blog.
I think that blogs – which should be a part of your website – are one of the most important tools you can use in terms of marketing. This allows people to see your current work, but told as a complete story.
Like with Instagram, it’s great to have that direct interaction with potential clients online, so they can research your work, comment on it, and find you through tags; not only can they look through the highlights and reels of your work, but with a website and blog, your clients can also take a deeper dive into what a whole wedding session (if that’s your type of photography) is going to look like.
This is always who you should be marketing towards: That first-time potential client/couple/business who lands on your website and wants to know more about how the day is going to go down, and what to expect from how you tell your client’s stories with the camera.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned when it comes to branding is to be consistent with both your posting schedule and your aesthetic. If, for example, you’re posting both on Instagram and your blog, try to set a certain time that you do each thing and then stick to that time, because hopefully, once you start to build a following, they’re going to come to rely on you.
Consistency on your part also gives people watching your business and your work a stronger sense of trust in your brand, because it shows that you can be reliable.
This goes into the second part of your branding efforts, which is your post-edits. In the beginning of your photography career, you’re going to be playing with a lot of different styles, in terms of post-production and how you edit your work, and finding your niche with the kind of storytelling you wish to put out.
However, as much as that’s true and important, do aim for consistency in your work and in your brand imagery; the lighting, presentation (format on Instagram and Facebook) things like that definitely resonate more strongly with people who are looking through your work when they see consistency.
The Day-to-Day of a Professional Photographer
Running your own photography business is about much more than simply knowing what to do behind a camera. Here are Lauren’s top tips for how to succeed as a photographer through managing your daily routine:
Know your business.
Understand who the competition is in the area in which you work. Remember to connect with those whose work you admire or where you feel there could be a mutual bond. The tide raises all ships, and it’s important to celebrate and support other artists and creators in your field, regardless of whether or not they’re your competition.
Run a smooth ship.
The easiest rule to remember is to treat others as you wish to be treated in your business.
Potential customers are quick to move on, especially with “non-essential services” like photography (i.e. services you don’t use every day), so it’s key to give them the service that you would want if you were a customer.
Things like responding to emails within 24 hours are SO important. And, having a working, functioning website is key. Check on it every couple of days to make sure the links are clickable, that everything loads quickly, etc. because people won’t wait around for you to get your act together; they’ll move on to the next vendor in the blink of an eye.
This is one of my favorites, and it’s a lifesaver during periods you’re very busy, which hopefully you’ll experience at some point if you’re trying to start a photography business! It’s inevitable; you’ll reach a stage where you have to juggle a lot of things – so to help yourself get organized, I highly recommend creating a filing system.
On your computer, have a number of specific, designated folders, so you can get into them rapidly and find what you’re looking for if need be.
And, label your files so that you can easily search for them on your computer. You can file both emails and images, and first categorize them by job, then by year, then by date of the job, and lastly, by the name of client.
Also, make sure to have both a professional and personal email address. Because it’s important to represent yourself as a brand, you have to be careful to separate your business self from your personal self.
Imagine if your client gets an email from [email protected] instead of [email protected]; it’s not going to look good, and it will probably turn them off from your brand pretty quickly. Having two separate email addresses will help keep things professional.
Finally, always make backups immediately, and then back up your backups. You’re holding people’s stories and lives in your camera; protect them and make sure they’re kept safe. There is nothing worse for a photographer than having to call your clients and tell them you’ve lost their images or that they’ve been damaged from a memory card.
Be inspired daily.
This doesn’t necessarily have to do with photography at all; there are loads of different creative branches that can feed into your inspiration, like a cool Pinterest board or something interesting you’ve read…follow artists, entertainers and any other form of expression that brings you joy. Whatever the medium, try to find something that inspires you on the daily, to keep your creativity sharp.
Stay open to opportunity.
The most viable thing you can give to your business is time. In the beginning of your photography journey, you don’t know where your work could take you or who you might meet along the way.
Go for pro bono work. Volunteer to practice on friends and cover events for free; collaborate with others, lend your services to a charity once a year – do whatever you need to do to gain experience and build your portfolio.
That said, remember to value your work monetarily; there will be a stage where you feel like you’ve built up your portfolio enough and you’ll start to get trickles of full-paying clients coming in and filling up your calendar.
At that stage, remember that you have to start valuing your time and money, because you are a business as much as you’re an artist. The ultimate thing about building your portfolio is to show your work to clients, so once you have those clients, remember that your time is valuable.
Take time for yourself.
Knowing the boundaries between home and work – as someone who is self-employed – can be difficult. To help you balance, create a routine around your day that involves exercise, getting out of the house at least once, and, (if you’re not on location), meeting fellow artists or creatives.
Try to be an active part of the community (online or in person), pursue another passion that isn’t photography, and create a clear list of short-term goals, weekly goals, and long-term goals that you can tackle when you first start your day.
I recommend trying to complete your biggest goal first thing in the morning, when you’re feeling fresh and pumped up for the day. It’s important to start the day off right, with goals and direction; DON’T stay in pajamas, even if you know you’re going to be home all day editing.
And, this may sound obvious but do everyone in your life a favor and don’t skimp on your showers; as home-bound creatives, we tend to forget how important it is to do the little things, but trust me – your family and friends will appreciate it.
How to Be Successful on the Job
Managing your day to day is important, but so is knowing how to handle yourself when you’re actually out in the world shooting your subjects. You’re going to learn by experience, but it doesn’t hurt to go on location already prepared!
I’ve listed this first because it’s a BIG ONE. Like we spoke about in reference to contracts earlier, it’s important to make clear contractual boundaries, and lay out expectations with clients and vendors. Once you’ve done that – repeat them.
Communicate as much as you can by email, so that everything is written clearly. If you have a phone call or meet up with a client, follow up by email with a CV, email, or notes regarding what you’ve discussed and agreed upon and have them confirm.
It’s crucial for your client to know where they stand when they hire you; do not be shy to express what you need in order to deliver the best possible images for them.
Also, your work is yours, and while it’s okay (and encouraged) to ask clients to send you examples of other work that they like, in the end of the day they’re hiring you.
Stay true to your vision and brand. It’s true that this vision may change with time, after you started your business and had a chance to experiment, but ultimately, once you start working towards who you are as a brand and aesthetically as an artist, you have to stay true to that vision – because that’s what’s going to draw in your clients.
So, managing expectations includes everything from the type of work and artistic license you hold over your work, to how you work on the day of your clients’ events, what you will need from them to deliver your best (family members coming on time, meals, hours of coverage, etc.).
Your clients need to understand who they’re working with and to see that your time is valuable, so ask them to show commitment to your time with a written agreement that includes a non-refundable deposit.
Explain artistic license.
This is included with managing expectations, but it’s something that is important to emphasize to your clients. They need to understand that they’re hiring you for the type of work that you’ve presented to them, and that’s the sort of work they can expect.
That said, if the photos you take of them aren’t identical to the work they’ve seen in the portfolio, that’s okay too! As an artist, your work will evolve; just make sure your clients know that as much as you do.
Get non-refundable deposits.
Your time is money. Period. When you book someone into your calendar, you’re saying no to other potential clients; that’s why a nonrefundable deposit is important, and you shouldn’t be shy to ask for one. If your clients are ready to commit to you, then they shouldn’t have a problem putting the money down.
Of course, on a personal level, if you want to give refundable exceptions (for example, like for a family emergency) then go for it, but ultimately there should be a deposit scheme in place when you confirm date for a shoot.
Form key relationships with vendors.
Again, I’m coming from the world of wedding photography, so I’m speaking from personal experience.
When advising couples who are planning their weddings, if other vendors know you and have enjoyed working with you in the past, they’re more likely to recommend your services to your future clients. Vendors are great to be in touch with and have a good relationship with – especially for wedding and portrait photographers.
That means that if you work directly with vendors on a job, always be kind and send over a few images of your work, so they have nice images of their services to use for their websites (of course, let them know to credit you because you do wanna reach their audiences too!).
If you’re a florist, for example, it’s always nice to receive photos of your arrangements that you can then use for your own marketing.
Set up a timeline with your clients.
I’m speaking as a wedding and portrait photographer here, but this tip can apply to most types of photography. A lot of the time, people don’t have a wedding planner, and even if they do, the planner won’t have your interests as a photographer in mind. You have to prioritize what it is that you need to deliver on the images that your clients expect from your service.
Checking out your clients’ timeline or helping them create their own timeline will help you insert the amount of time you require to take photos of them, their friends, the decor and the details – all of the small things that you should think about before you get to the event.
Timelines are crucial, even for portrait photography; you have to time your shoot around the sunlight, making sure that your client understands that you can’t go back in time and bring back the light – so if they’re late to their own shoot, there will only be a certain amount of light left. Ultimately, couples will look to you as an expert in the industry and as someone from whom to ask advice, so be prepared for that; this is where research comes in handy.
And, before the day of the shoot, make sure you have a plan set up with your clients, because the day goes by really fast, and you want to capture all of the details. Your clients won’t remember the struggles you had that day or the hiccups you ran into; they’ll just know that you missed out on something important to them.
So, have them prepare expectations for you, knowing that if they provide information about their family or emphasize which details of the event are important to them to get on camera, then you 100% make sure to get those.
Put just as much effort into post-production.
After your shoot, your job isn’t over. You should have clearly stated delivery times for your photographs, but aim to deliver before the date you promised. Be unexpected in a positive way, and make sure expectations are exceeded.
Often, even if you’re super clear with clients about deadlines, you will still get an email two days after an event that asks you where their photos are. It’s normal – especially if your client is a couple who just had their wedding, and they’re super excited to see images.
So, it’s okay to go above and beyond for them, but also make sure that the delivery date is in writing – both for personal and commercial clients.
Also, remember, that you are an artist as much as a business owner, and sometimes that means exporting work that you don’t know how to do or that takes too much time. Don’t be afraid to outsource work when your time can be put to better use.
For example, if you hate post-production editing, find someone to do that for you. (I would recommend this only once you’re 6 months to a year in, when you have an understanding of the type of image and aesthetic you want your photos to look like, so that they align with your brand.)
Or, think about outsourcing your accounting, your marketing (someone to help you with social media) – anything you find difficult. Don’t be afraid to invest in that, because you’re going to be struggling all of the things you need to keep up with. Part of this burden can be offloaded with outsourcing, so you can put your time and energy into the things you excel at.
Take risks once you have the safe shot.
Practice and shoot whenever you have the opportunity; work and collaborate with other creatives in the industry; try out new approaches, but stay true to yourself and your gut instincts. Once you start shooting, you’ll know what you’re drawn to and what you don’t want to continue doing – but you’ll only know this once you practice. Don’t be afraid to try new things; it will help you grow as an artist.
Avoid trend photography.
Design trends fade, and so will your identity if you only attach it to fleeting trends. Remember, you are a storyteller. The person who hired you is hiring you for your work and vision, so give them that.
Invest in yourself.
Even after your business is up and running, it’s important to keep learning and evolving, trying out new techniques, taking an online course – anything that helps you invest in yourself. As an artist and small business owner, it’s crucial to keep evolving and developing, and education is key for that.
There are tons of resources online to help. I personally like CreativeLive, which has live resources for photography that are free, which is a great way to learn all about your small business.
Be proud of your work.
Print your images and hang them up in your home, so that you can look at your best work and be inspired by how far you have come as an artist and storyteller, and aspire to where you want to be. These will serve as daily reminders that you’re good enough and on the right track with your photography business.
Sometimes it can be tough or isolating to run your own business; and as an artist, it’s important to have support and validation that you can do it!
What it Takes to be a Successful Photographer
Photography as a hobby can be an awesome creative outlet, but turning your hobby into a business may not be for everyone. Here are some of the traits you need to have in order to make it big in the industry:
You have to be a people-person.
A photographer at their core is a storyteller. You’re capturing moving stories; your connection with your subjects is crucial, so you have to work hard to make sure you’re connecting with them on a human level. It will elevate your work as your subjects will learn to trust you, become more relaxed and do whatever it is on the other side of the lens that you’re hoping to capture in the most natural way intended.
For example, wedding photographers enter the lives of two individuals on one of the most intense, emotional days you can come across them. You want them to trust that you’re capturing their day and that they feel at ease around you; you must act both as calming and energetic as possible when you’re in their presence.
Friends and family will want your attention (or sometimes not), and it’s your job to be there to capture this day for them, to observe them, to understand who they are, to be pleasant under pressure and get to know them a little and create connections. You are your business, so presenting yourself as how you want your photography to come across is crucial. People might not remember someone nice, but they sure as hell will remember someone rude or abrasive – and then they’ll speak about it.
I have to say, as a wedding/portrait photographer, being a people-person is definitely core and something you should consider if you don’t feel you are one before going into the industry; you’re constantly going to have people in your face demanding and expecting a lot of things from you at once and you’re going to have to learn how to balance that.
But, this also applies to sports photography and connecting with the athletes, fashion photography and connecting with the models; in fact, the only place you can probably get away with not being such a big people-person is as a photographer that’s just selling in exhibitions and purely doing their work from an independent artist point of view (but you will still have to form relationships with galleries and buyers).
This isn’t to say that you need to be a Jedi of networking and communicating, but you do need to be able to maintain a nice disposition with people for a few hours at a time.
You have to be passionate.
Your photography is a business. This is one of the biggest, most shocking things that people don’t understand before going into any sort of photography; like I said above, probably 10% of what you do as a photographer is actual photography, and 90% of the rest of it is business, so you have to be passionate and love what you do.
You have to be determined.
You will get rejected a lot, which can be difficult for a lot of people to stomach. As an artist, it packs an even bigger sting, because it’s based on your own work.
Having thick skin and persistence pays off; remember that not everyone will have the same taste as you, which you can learn to see as a good thing. You’ll be filtering out potential clients who don’t align with your work or with you as a person (since both of those things are closely intertwined), and unlike with other jobs, you don’t have the luxury of interviewing a few times and then landing the job.
As a photographer, you’ll always be going to interviews and searching for the next job, whether from a couple or family or business that you’re selling your services to. And, as you can imagine, someone who is constantly searching for work has to be determined; unless you work in-house in a studio, no one is finding your work for you, and the daily grind can be tough.
Over to You
As you work on setting up your photography business, remember to do your research, form relationships with creators and vendors, and work on branding yourself consistently. And, you can follow Lauren on Instagram and Facebook to see more of her gorgeous work and get inspired to create your own images.